“Son, we’re in trouble. Chiang Kai-shek has just flown to Taiwan with his family and his money.”
Those words from my father in January 1949, when I was seven, were my introduction to an early crash course on the importance of freedom of religion and conscience. We were living in what was then Nanking, the capital of the Western-supported National Republic of China. Following the generalissimo’s flight, it was only a matter of weeks before the Red Army captured the city, Mao moved the capital of China back to Beijing, and his Communist regime began its reign of terror, including the vicious persecution of Christians.
Earlier, as a small boy, I had been bored to death as I endured church services and sermons, which were growing longer and longer each week, only to be told that the pastors were planning for the dire persecution that lay ahead. They were laying down all the foundational teaching they could in order to prepare their people for whatever was coming.
And come it did.
It was one of the most vicious, brutal, and systematic persecutions in the history of the Christian church, yet one in which the faith of the Christians prevailed gloriously and the church in China grew exponentially—as it will again, despite the brutality-cum-sophistication of the current persecution under Xi Jinping.
From that day on, the lesson has been branded on my heart: freedom of religion and conscience is a precious, foundational, and indispensable right, and we must never take it for granted.
It is no casual matter. It is not merely an abstract principle or parchment right. Lying at the heart of the freedom to be human and to be faithful, it is ultimately a matter of life and death for millions of people in our world—and not only for Christians but for people of almost every faith.
Truly, we can declare with a ringing conviction that freedom of religion and conscience is the “first freedom” and a foundational human right, a principle and a protection that every lover of freedom and justice, and certainly every follower of Jesus, should understand, promote, and defend as critical and priceless.
Weighing the Stakes
Humanity now faces one of the most extraordinary moments we have ever encountered in the long story of our existence on planet earth. For today, we humans stand “post-Auschwitz,” “post-Hiroshima,” and “pre-Singularity,” and we must answer to ourselves what we mean when we call ourselves “human.”
“Post-Auschwitz” means that we have to answer the question, “What does it say of us that those who carried out these monstrous crimes against humanity were the same species we are?”
“Post-Hiroshima” and the later nuclear defense of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD for short) means that we have to ask ourselves, “What does it say of us that our safest defense against the threats of a menacing Other is a counterthreat to destroy them entirely and even to destroy many of our fellow humans and much of the earth that is our home?”
And “pre-Singularity” means that we have to explore the question, “What has brought us to the point where we pursue progress and seek salvation through technology, even though the price of this salvation and progress is a vision of humanity that would be unrecognizable, if not repellent to almost all human beings up until now?”
These are titanic questions, but the basic challenge facing our generation is simple: in the words of the great Jewish leader, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain,
Can we make, on earth, a social order not based on the transactions of power but on respect for the human person—each person—as ‘the image of God’?
And, I would add, as we attempt to do that in today’s advanced modern world, can we transform people long enervated by ancient and modern forms of deference, passivity, dependency, and victimhood into members of society and citizens of nations with a capacity for freedom, responsibility, initiative, enterprise, and justice?
That prospect is easy to state but hard to bring about. There is no question that a thicket of questions and controversy now surrounds each of the ideas just mentioned—human dignity, freedom, responsibility, equality, justice, peace, and stability. But no issue is more crucial to them all and to the human future than the human understanding of humanity, and no principle is more critical to this issue than freedom of religion and conscience. Hence this book, Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All, setting out the importance of this principle, and my privilege in introducing it.
Editor’s note: Read Os Guinness’ full chapter in the new book, Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (Abilene Christian University Press). Pre-order the book in the IFWE bookstore by 11/11/19 and save 30%!
What others are saying about Set Free:
“a collection of superb essays speaking to one of the most pressing moral and civil issues of our time.”
– Timothy George, research professor at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the 28-volume Reformation Commentary on Scripture